Place the blame for gun violence where it belongs

Posted: Apr 09, 2003 12:00 AM

Imagine a city where the citizens have come to feel so victimized by gun violence that they give up trying to stop criminals. Instead, they choose the most easily identifiable symbol of their problem - gun manufacturers - and start yelling at them. To these frightened souls, it feels good to yell at gun manufacturers. It feels good to vent their fears. A 52-year-old lady tells a sad and compelling story in the Wall Street Journal about how her three sons were gunned down in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

Other citizens empathize with her. They too have seen the destruction that these weapons can wreak and they're fed up with the gun problem. Together they support the NAACP's March 24 lawsuit, which blames gun manufacturers for funneling handguns into poor, urban areas where they often end up in the hands of criminals. According to the lawsuit, negligent marketing by gun manufacturers is turning minority communities into "war zones."

These citizens feel as if they're empowering themselves. In reality, they are merely embracing some sort of all-encompassing truth that places the onus of responsibility for gun violence solely on gun manufacturers, as opposed to the criminals who are actually pulling the triggers.

That is not to say gun violence is not a serious problem. Plainly it is. But the problem with this lawsuit is that it concerns itself only with victimization. The lawsuit carries with it an implicit message that gun manufacturers are responsible for gun violence. We are all victims. Not victims of hardened criminals who stalk our streets, but rather victims of gun manufacturers. Such a viewpoint places the emphasis on social retribution, rather than individual responsibility. Get it? The gun manufacturers are being blamed for the harsh acts of criminals.

This way of thinking may make citizens feel better, but it doesn't make our streets safer. After all, consider that many potential gun purchasers turned down for firearm permits, simply get someone else to buy a gun for them. Consider that there are already enough illegal guns floating around our cities to supply criminals for decades. Or, more to the point, consider that blaming the gun manufacturers does little to affect the culture of criminals. That is to say, suing gun makers does not create an effective deterrent for the criminal carrying an illegal firearm.

One thing that has been shown to impact upon the use of illegal firearms is the enforcement of tough, longstanding federal laws that guarantee jail time in federal facilities for criminals caught with illegal firearms. In the cities where this zero tolerance approach has been tested, the prospect of serving time in a federal facility has formed a powerful enough deterrent to actually alter criminal behavior.

One such program, Project Exile, mandates an automatic five-year sentence in a federal prison for anyone caught carrying an illegal handgun. While offering recent testimony on the effectiveness of Project Exile, the assistant director of field operations for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Andrew Vita, told the story of a criminal who they caught with a substantial quantity of drugs. "Surprisingly," recalls Vita, "no guns were recovered during the search. It was the first time officers could remember a defendant with such large quantities of drugs not being armed in any way. Later, the prosecutor questioned the defendant extensively about where the guns were, the defendant finally stated, 'haven't you heard, man? Five years!'"

Get it? Fighting crime and changing the culture of criminals carrying illegal firearms saves lives. Suing gun manufacturers doe not.

Until we commit to enforcing the tough federal laws already on the books, suing gun manufacturers amounts to little more than a pseudo event; a press conference solely for the purpose of having a press conference; a few well-scripted words to make us feel like we're doing something about gun violence.

Meanwhile, criminals continue to stalk our streets.